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Haiti quake: U.N. rescue mission

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Turning pickup trucks into ambulances and doors into stretchers, Haitians are frantically struggling to save those injured in this week's earthquake while hoping foreign governments will quickly send in aid.

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Farhan Haq
Spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 1:00 PM

The United Nations appears to have suffered its greatest loss of life in a single incident as about 150 of its employees in Haiti, including the mission's leader, remained trapped Wednesday under the rubble of their headquarters and other U.N. facilities after Tuesday's massive earthquake.

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Farhan Haq, U.N. spokesperson, was online Thursday, Jan. 14, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss rescue efforts and the latest news from ground zero.

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Farhan Haq: Hi there. My name is Farhan Haq, and I am a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Over the last few days, we have been responding to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The UN system is trying to ferry in humanitarian assistance as quickly as possible, while our peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSTAH, is still trying to conduct search and rescue operations. A number of countries have already begun to bring in the sort of helicopters and heavy equipment we need to move rubble and try to find survivors. For our own part, some 150 or even more UN personnel are missing, but even here, we have been able to find survivors, including one person who was pulled out of the rubble this morning. So we are not giving up hope, although the ultimate death toll from this earthquake, we believe, will be horrific, and the world needs to respond quickly. Thanks for all your interest.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Haq,

Obviously the priority in the next few days is getting food and medical supplies to Haiti. In the coming weeks and months, how would you recommend that U.S. companies that do substantial trade with Haiti react to this disaster? In particular, are there any international organizations that are coordinating re-building efforts so that U.S. companies can provide services and needed exports? (i.e., building materials, construction services, etc.?)

Farhan Haq: The question of what to do in the medium- to long-term is one we have already begun to explore, and the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, discussed it yesterday with his Special Envoy for Haiti, former US President Bill Clinton. President Clinton will try to ensure that in the longer-term, Governments and companies can encourage business to work in Haiti. President Clinton has a good op-ed in today's Washington Post with more details.

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washingtonpost.com: What we can do to help Haiti, now and beyond (Post, Jan. 14)

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Chicago, Ill.: Why do you think helicopters are not being used to bring in supplies when roads to Port-au-Prince are impassable?

Farhan Haq: Helicopters are indeed a crucial need, and my boss, Ban Ki-moon, has been in touch with governments to make sure that they will quickly bring in helicopters, which are crucial for relief and rescue efforts at this time. Some nations have already begun to bring in the sort of assets that are needed. The US, France, China and the Dominican Republic are bringing in teams to help with the rescue effort, while France and Venezuela have flown in supplies. That is all very helpful, but more is needed, and we are pushing for more to get into the country quickly.

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Santa Cruz: I know that Haiti shares its island with the Dominican Republic, which is in much better shape economically, etc., than Haiti. Are there roads from the DR into Haiti? I'm curious whether the DR is being used as a staging ground for relief. What is the relationship (both politically and infrastructure) between the two countries?

Farhan Haq: Yes, there are roads between the Dominican Republic and Haiti; however, the earthquake has severely damaged Haiti's infrastructure, including its roads, making it difficult to bring aid that way in the short term. For now, helicopters will be a crucial need.

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Boonsboro, Md.: How much of the tragic information we are getting is actually confirmed, as opposed to speculation or rumors? This sounds heartless, but after Katrina many of the reports put out turned out to be false.

Farhan Haq: This is exactly why we have declined to put out casualty figures in the short term; we are waiting until confirmations are received, which is difficult given the problems since the earthquake with both Haiti's infrastructure and its communications system.

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Bristow, Va.: Has the U.N. made and will it continue to make Haiti a better country in the future?

Farhan Haq: We hope that we can do that. The head of our mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi -- who remains missing since the building that he was working in collapsed -- told the Security Council just a month ago that Haiti was turning a corner, and this coming year could help the Haitians to move away from the instability of the past. Unfortunately, the earthquake makes that task much harder than before. But we will not give up our efforts, and we continue to encourage governments to assist Haiti as it tries to become a stable democracy that can provide a decent standard of living to its people.

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Williamsburg, Va.: What is the status of the airport closure -- how long, how will they get gas in?

Farhan Haq: The airstrips in Port-au-Prince are in working condition, and humanitarian groups are able to bring in crucial aid and supplies. But the communications system has been badly hit, so it may take some time to ensure that it is safe for commercial air traffic to resume. We will assist the Haitian authorities in that.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Water is so basic, it doesn't require any time assessing a situation like this to know it is needed ASAP. Why wasn't water to be distributed to the population sent immediately with the rescue teams?

Farhan Haq: Food and water is being distributed, including through our World Food Programme. They have begun distributions in Jacmel and are trying to do the same in Port au Prince; the important thing is to be able to deal with the damaged infrastructure and bring food and water to key distribution points. That is happening now.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello,

There are several U.N. interns at the logistics base in P-au-P. There are security guards around the compound, so they are safe. They are trying to get evacuated today by helicopter to the Dominican Republic. they are from the U.S., Canada and France.

Here are the names of the team: Alex Fisher-American Megan Rapp-American Elisabeth Lindenmayer-French Isabelle Lindenmayer-French/American? Gerald Stang-Canadian James Taylor-Canadian Annika Allman-Canadian Gabrielle Apollon-Canadian John Burnett-Canadian

Any help is appreciated.

Megan A. Rapp Master of International Affairs, 2011 Concentration: Economic and Political Development School of International and Public Affairs Columbia University mar2203@columbia.edu

Farhan Haq: We haven't been able to confirm most names at this time, but we have set up a hotline for concerned family members to use; it's 212-963-4139. Please, this is ONLY for family members who are wondering about their relatives; thanks.

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Chicago, Ill.: While watching MSNBC and CNN coverage of the ghastly Haiti situation, I keep wondering why, if the roads are impassable, no one has mentioned helicopter flights to bring in hospital supplies, water and food. A good landing location would be in the large lawn in front of the palace that appears to now be empty of people?

Farhan Haq: Actually, the main airstrips in Port au Prince are usable, and we are using them. But we are trying to get to open spaces that can be used as distribution centers for giving aid to the population.

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DeKalb, Ill.: Who is currently and actually is 'in charge' on the ground in Haiti? What remaining capacity does the Haitian government have to handle and work with UN and other efforts?

Farhan Haq: The Haitian Government is still in charge, and the Haitian President Rene Preval, was unharmed by the earthquake. We are coordinating the work on the ground with him. Since a number of our key UN personnel have been missing since the earthquake, the UN effort is currently spearheaded by Edmond Mulet, a senior UN official from New York who arrived in Haiti today. UN peacekeepers are doing all they can to maintain public order while rescue efforts continue.

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Arlington, Va.: I am eager to offer donations to help the people of Haiti. There are so many organizations that are now accepting donations -- can you recommend which are the most equipped to provide immediate help?

Farhan Haq: There are many concerned aid groups that are trying to help. In the short term, any of the groups that are providing food, water and medicines are tremendously helpful. Given the large number of bodies on the streets, we will need medical supplies to get there fast, to avert a public health crisis in the aftermath of the earthquake.

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Alexandria, Va.: First, my most sincere condolences for the loss of life the U.N. has suffered in Haiti.

Specialized rescue teams (such as the one from Fairfax Virginia) usually arrive at disaster sites in Third World countries several days after the occurance. They usually find dead bodies and can only rescue a few live victims.

In the U.S. or Europe, rescue operations start within hours.

Is there a way that things could be organized so that serious rescue work can begin sooner in poor countries so that more people survive?

Farhan Haq: Thanks for your condolences. Yes, the UN itself was on the ground trying to do search and rescue efforts almost immediately. Unfortunately, our own communications apparatus was badly damaged (as were communications throughout Haiti) and much of the leadership of the UN Mission in Haiti is still not accounted for, after their own headquarters collapsed. But we are on the ground for rescue efforts, and other countries have quickly moved in their own rescue teams, including the US, France, China and the Dominican Republic.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Any phone numbers or Web sites that are coordinating volunteer efforts for Haiti?

Farhan Haq: One helpful web site is Reliefweb, which is www.reliefweb.int. Its Haiti page is:

http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/dbc.nsf/doc108?OpenForm&emid=EQ-2010-000009-HTI&rc=2

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washingtonpost.com: ReliefWeb

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Farhan Haq. Thank you for joining.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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